The demise of the Soviet Union, backlash against the religious right, rising political polarization and the internet may all have played a role.
Perhaps the most oft-repeated statistic in American religion is the increase in religiously unaffiliated from just 5% of the population in the early 1970s to about 30% of adults by 2022. In a field where changes generally move at a glacial pace, this demographic fact may represent the most abrupt and consequential change in American society in the post-war period.
But there was such a more recent phase change, when American religion changed incredibly rapidly, the consequences of which we still feel today.
Using data from the General Social Survey, which was conducted consistently from 1972 to 2021, and restricting the sample to adults aged 18 to 35, only one decade becomes clear: the 1990s. is a time when young Americans seemed to lose their religion virtually overnight.
In 1991, 87% of young adults indicated that their faith was Christian, mainly Catholic and Protestant. Only 8% of this age group reported no religious affiliation.
In 1998, just seven years later, the share of 18-35 year olds who identified themselves as Christians fell 14 percentage points to 73%, while the percentage who answered “none” jumped to 20%, an increase by 12 percentage points. A ratio that had not changed at all between 1972 and 1991 had grown by double-digit percentages in seven years.
What brought about this change at this precise moment in American history? It’s hard to identify just one thing, but there are possible culprits.
• The end of the Soviet Union: On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin assumed power over Russia.
Described by historian Kevin Kruse and others as a conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless Communists of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was a time when “In God We Trust” appeared for the first time on U.S. currency and “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
By the mid-1990s, being non-religious no longer meant being un-American, allowing many uninitiated people to begin expressing their true feelings in inquiries.
• Backlash against the religious right: As I describe in my book “NoneEvangelical Christians represented about 17% of the American population in 1972; by 1993, this figure had risen to 30%. As Ruth Braunstein argued in The Guardian earlier this year, “backlash against a radical form of religious expression leads people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are considered culpable by association with radicals”.
In the face of strident rhetoric from Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed out of the church and never came back.
• Political polarization: In his excellent 2018 book, “Red and blue: the 1990s and the birth of political tribalismSteve Kornacki points out that Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of the House in 1994 by refusing to compromise with those across the aisle. Gingrich’s bomb-throwing approach appealed conservative Christians portraying Democrats as morally inferior and godless Many young Americans have chosen godlessness.
• The Internet: Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril. It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other religions on new technology – and saw the flaws in their own – some would abandon the faith altogether. But the data does not fully support it. According to the Census Bureau, only 20% of American households had Internet access in 1997. While many young Americans had Internet access at school before they had a home connection, the effect probably only accelerating the trends cited above.
The echo of that fall is what we are experiencing today. Many of those who fled religion in large numbers during this time also chose to raise their children without religion. Today, nearly half of those kids — Millennials and Gen Z — say they have no religious affiliation.
(Ryan Burge is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, pastor of the American Baptist Church, and author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”. Comments do not reflect necessarily those of Religion News Service.)
(Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.)